The Straits Times, Singapore
The Straits Times Tuesday March 17, 2009 Quiz show hero By DEEPIKA SHETTY Diplomat-author loves the film adaptation of his book but is unhappy with it being renamed Slumdog Millionaire. THE Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire is about a poor boy’s rise to fortune on TV quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? The author of the book on which the movie is based is more a rich man than a poor boy, but like his hero, he suddenly finds himself in a quiz show, of sorts. Indian author Vikas Swarup, 46, has emerged from obscurity to find that a book he wrote almost six years ago under the less-than-exciting title ofQ&A has catapulted him into the glare of global media scrutiny. It is all a bit of a shock for Swarup, who is a diplomat and not a full-time writer. He is India’s deputy high commissioner to South Africa. It is one of a string of posts this son of lawyers from the northern Indian city of Allahabad has held since he joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1986.
vikas swarup

Danny Boyle (right), winner of the best director Oscar forSlumdog Millionaire, with Vikas Swarup, author of Q&A, the original title of the book upon which the film was based.

Unusually for an author, it seems that this is one writer who loves the film adaptation.The novel that inspired Slumdog Millionaire was the first book he published. But in the wake of the film’s success, he has been inundated with interview requests from media everywhere. He says: “It works as a film. A film has to be visually dazzling, which it is. A film has to be riveting, which it is. A film has to have an emotional component, which it has. I feel this film delivers on all fronts. The global recognition it has got is proof.” Indeed, he seems unaffected by the attention. When he headed to Los Angeles for the greatest celebration of his life, the Oscars, he deliberately left his mobile phone behind in South Africa. Although this meant he was out of touch with friends and family, not to mention the desperate media. He said he simply wanted to enjoy the moment. And he was unruffled when Hollywood went wow. Even when actress Jennifer Aniston of Marley & Me movie fame told him at a post-Oscar party, “What a story, man”, he took it in his stride with a polite smile. In a separate interview with Life!, his artist wife Aparna, 43, told all about the Aniston moment. She says: “Had we been younger, it would have been easier to get carried away. Now we can look back (at this) with admiration.” Being the consummate diplomat that he is, Swarup knows how to deal with his adoring fans and his equally harsh critics. For example, he takes on those who say the film indulges in “poverty porn” by romanticising India’s slum dwellings. The father of two boys, Aditya, 17, and Varun, 12, says: “I just don’t buy this concept of poverty porn. Who likes to see poverty and who gets pleasure out of seeing poverty? I have not met a single person who has said ‘Show me a film on poverty, I get a kick out of it’. “Certainly, a film set in the slums of Mumbai is more compelling than a film about love, marriage and divorce. The thing about (director) Danny Boyle’s film, like my book, is that it neither trivialises nor degrades ­poverty.” He points out: “At the core, there is something universal about the book and the film. It is about the underdog winning, and that is something that appeals to people in all cultures and communities. It goes to show that small can be beautiful, that hope is contagious and that a story set in a slum in India can speak to our common humanity.” It certainly speaks to all cultures, judging by the sales of the book since it received global exposure via the film and its Oscar success. The book with the original title of Q&A sold a total of 150,000 copies worldwide. But the film’s tie-in edition of the book, which was released in January this year, has sold more than 200,000 copies so far in English alone. It has been translated into 36 languages. Authors typically get a royalty of 10% to 15% of the retail price from the sale of their books. An online check on showed copies ofQ&A are now out of stock, though the movie tie-in book is available. When Q&A was first released in Singapore in 2005, it barely caused a ripple. At a warehouse sale by book distributor MPH in November last year, it was sold for just US$5 (RM18.50). But since being turned into a movie, the book – under its screen name – has been selling like hot cakes, says Matthias Low, MPH’s merchandising manager. The film’s Academy Award success last month, when it scooped eight Oscars, no doubt sparked extra interest. Amazingly for a small market like Singapore, MPH has sold 15,000 copies since the start of last month. Swarup’s Slumdog Millionaire success is a far cry from when he introduced his book to readers. It is a little-known fact, but one of his first stops when Q&A was first published four years ago was Singapore. In May 2005, en route to the Sydney Writers Festival, he did a reading at the Indian High Commission in Grange Road. Fewer than 100 people showed up. He recalls: “Singapore was one of the first places where I came face to face with my readers. In fact, when I wrote the book, I wrote it primarily as an Indian book for an Indian audience. I had no idea it would be embraced by readers everywhere and would emerge as a sort of global novel.” Inspiration from slum kids Q&A was written in just two months and he admits he has been incredibly lucky as a writer. “Basically, I wrote 4½ chapters and sent it to 10 agents. I picked the 11th agent off the Internet, who liked the book and I had a deal. I am really one of those lucky authors who does not have a pile of rejection slips in my cupboard,” he says. He wrote the book at the end of his diplomatic posting in London in 2003 after his wife returned to New Delhi with their sons. That was when he decided to try writing and it just happened. The inspiration came from a newspaper report he had read, which talked about slum children who were using a mobile Internet facility and became proficient at navigating the Internet. He says: “Normally, you associate the Internet with a certain level of sophistication. Here, you had children from a slum who had never gone to school, had probably never read the newspapers, who were logging on. “This set me thinking that perhaps there is some innate ability in all of us that, given the right opportunity, can surface,” he says. At that time, there was the phenomenon of the first globally televised syndicated quiz show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, which he decided to tap on. His idea was to juxtapose the quiz show with a contestant who did not quite fit the typical profile – and Q&A was born. Despite its huge success as Slumdog Millionaire, he does have some quibbles. The writer in him takes issue with the renaming of the book. He says: “Frankly, I was not very happy with it. I even checked with my agent and I was told there was little we could do about it as the rights had been sold as a film-book tie-in. The renamed book was targeted at people who would want to read it after watching the film and the name they would have in mind is Slumdog Millionaire. My agent asked me, ‘Would you rather that the story be told through a different cover or would you rather be a purist and let it remain unsold?’ So I let it go.” If he had his way, he would have wanted the name of his protagonist used in the film as well. “I was disappointed to see they had changed the name to Jamal Malik. I thought the name Ram Mohammad Thomas conveyed a message for our times. But I do understand the film-makers neither had the time nor the budget to go into the back stories to explain how he got the name. And I think ‘Please welcome Jamal Malik’, said by Anil Kapoor as the show host, has a better ring to it.” When asked about his breezy and page-turning writing style, which is different from most Indian writers’ heavy, literary style, Swarup says: “I wanted to write the kind of book that I would want to read. There is a lot of obsession in India that one has to be a literary writer, one has to write to win the Booker Prize. “All I wanted to do was write a gripping novel, a page-turning book. I didn’t want to spend my time writing 10 paragraphs on the sun setting in the distant horizon.” But writing his second book was not as easy as the first one. Six Suspects, a 470-page novel, is based on the real-life murder of model Jessica Lall, who was shot in a New Delhi bar in 1999 when she refused to serve a drink. Laced with dark humour, the book has echoes of some of the sensational crimes that happened in India and the cover-ups that followed. It is a movie waiting to happen. Film rights have been sold to a British broadcaster. Despite all the international attention, Swarup is not taking a break. He has already started work on his third book. He says it will be set outside India although he does not want to reveal too much about the plot. There might be good reason for the secrecy. He tells of an incident involving his younger son, who has read the first two books. “I was astounded – he is only 12. I decided to put him to the test and asked him questions about both books and he answered everything correctly,” he says. “When we were done, he said he had earned an MP3 player and if I didn’t give it to him, he would reveal who the killer was on Facebook.” Swarup’s diplomatic response to that ultimatum? “Well, he got what he asked for,” he says, laughing. – The Straits Times, Singapore / Asia News Network